by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 1:26-56
Last Sunday we mainly sang songs—and you escaped without a sermon.
Today you have a sermon. Which is about a song. Mary’s song. A song the narrator presents as having been extemporized by Mary when she journeyed to the home of her elderly relative Elizabeth. Both the young, unmarried girl and her much older kinswoman were, miraculously, expecting sons. Mary responded to Elizabeth’s exultant greeting with a song that Christian tradition calls the Magnificat, so named because her opening phrase “magnifies” the name of God.
In Luke’s first two chapters we hear three canticles: one that Zechariah sings to baby John. Another is a song in Luke 2 that Simeon will sing upon seeing the child Jesus in the Temple for his dedication. But the most beloved of these songs is Mary’s. Unlike the song of Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, which was sung to their son John, and unlike Simeon’s canticle sung to the boy Jesus, Mary’s song was not sung to a child.
Mary’s song doesn’t even seem to be about the child. Mary’s song does not foretell what her son might become or do. Mary’s song does retell what God had already done in her life and in the life of her people down through the ages. Mary’s song is about God—-the kind of God who has done the unexpected in the past, the kind of God who might be expected to do the unexpected in the future. Mary’s song is theological and political. And Mary’s song is about the deepest love of all.
Gracious Elizabeth honored Mary with a blessing in prose—even as the life within her stirred and leapt at the sound of Mary’s voice. But Mary honored God with a lengthy poem, longer than any other stretch of words from Mary in all the Gospels. Scholars note the sophisticated poetry of Mary’s song that is best appreciated in the original Greek. But the general impact of Mary’s words through Luke’s artistry is meant to capture Mary’s importance. Even in our translation we recognize the elevated language of Mary’s song and the way it serves to elevate our understanding of Jesus. Luke celebrates John but shows that Jesus will overshadow him. John’s mother happily concedes her child’s lesser status in comparison to Jesus. And the very literariness of Mary’s song reinforces to Luke’s readers that Jesus should be regarded as greater than John.
Status is, in a way, what Mary’s song is about. Because Mary’s song lifts up the lowliest. The Magnificat is about upending power and depending on love. Put another way, Mary’s song expresses a love for the disempowered: the powerless baby and that whole litany of this world’s rejects.
Many note in the Magnificat the similarities between Mary’s song and Hannah’s song found in 1 Samuel 2, which Hannah sang when presenting her longed-for child to priest Eli, dedicating Samuel to serve in the Temple. Like Hannah’s song, Mary’s Magnificat is inspired by a son. While Hannah sang at the dedication of her young son, Mary sang in anticipation of her son’s birth. But both mothers sing not about their sons but about the world’s conditions and God’s priorities and power. Like Mary, Hannah sings of God’s privileging of the poor and defenseless, of the way God’s priorities reverse those of this world:
“4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
Mary echoes this idea that God sides with those on the margins.
Her song is the type that fuels revolutions:
51 God has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Then as now, we are astonished that a young girl would call out those in powerful positions and imply that God can and should remove them from power and bring them low because of their mistreatment of the lowly. Then as now, however, teens like Emma Gonzalez, the Parkland high school student with shaved head and brave heart, have dared to speak against leaders who fail to protect the weak. Then as now, girls like our own Chloe Duren have demanded and organized for justice. Mary had already seen the cruelty of the Roman Empire which ruled by terror tactics. Mary’s song reveals that she saw her pregnancy as an opportunity to bring hope for her people. Mary’s lyrics, you’ll note, are not about her; she sings about her people. Mary’s love for her baby is situated within her wider compassion for those he will come to serve and love.
The personal becomes political. Mary’s Magnificat is a musical manifesto. It’s no lullaby. It’s an anthem for the revolution to come when God will upend this world’s ways. Luke will later attribute to Jesus a description of the coming kingdom of God he’s helping to usher in, a new reality where “the last will be first and the first will be last”(Luke 13:30).
How do you think John and Jesus — and probably innumerable men and women in that time and place — came to dream of a world in which the circumstances for the rich and poor would be reversed? Surely Mary recognized the inequalities in her world and longed for a better life for her son and others. John and Jesus heard stories of God’s justice from their parents living in territory Rome had conquered. John and Jesus must have overheard conversations about how people should be treated. They must have listened to songs, subversive songs with lullaby melodies but dangerous lyrics. By the time the two cousins reached manhood, they were lending their voices to the culture-critiquing, radicalizing, protest-inducing calls to action. Is it too hard to imagine that a mother’s love for her son had to include love for others who would be likewise rejected and abused in a world where they had no voice, where the most vulnerable had no choice?
Love sometimes must be fierce. Not violent. But fierce. And it must reach out to people beyond personal relationships.
I remember as a new mother feeling a fierceness in my love for my child. But the church we attended seemed to assume that mothers loved only in gentle ways. Here’s the well-intentioned book my church gave me to read after my child was born: Meditations for the new Mother. One of the devotionals happens to be based on Mary’s Magnificat. But the only words quoted and commented on from the Magnificat (in the King James Version, of course) are these: “And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”
Where’s the part about God bringing down the powerful?
The devotional writer entirely ignores Mary’s ferocity. She instead encouraged new mothers to be like Mary, who, “in her humility . . . wonders at the Almighty’s choice of a lowly handmaiden. . . . Hers must have been a quiet, devout personality, for she discreetly mediated upon the momentous events of her days.” (Brenneman, Helen Good. Meditations for the New Mother, p. 21).
I now believe Mary was humble AND fierce. Love is fierce—-and fathers and mothers who love their children and the children of the whole community refuse to accept substandard education for some children, and inadequate social services, and reduction of Medicaid benefits, and the separation of children from parents when they cross our national border. Love requires us to advocate for our children and the children of our entire community. Love requires us to be fierce.
I learned one day last week that our daughter, a lawyer, had two wisdom teeth pulled that morning and went back to court that afternoon for a hearing because her indigent client needed her. When I told my sister, her response was: “She is a beast.” Yeh. She is. So are other young women and men who put their lives out there for others.
Mary’s song is a challenge to the powerful and a love song to the disempowered. The words of the Magnificat point to God rather than the child. Luke is establishing his gospel’s theology of salvation before he ever introduces to his readers the subject of his biography. Just how is God working out salvation? Each Gospel writer has a slightly different answer to this question of Christian soteriology. But Luke grounds his story, from the beginning, with this simple and shocking claim: God sides with the poor. And God will safe them. It may not happen quickly. Or easily. But God will have the last word—and God will lift up the poor and inconsequential and disregarded. And send the rich away empty.
Today’s lection concludes a bit disappointingly. In the final sentence we read: “And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home” (Luke 1: 56). For three months Mary and Elizabeth spent all their days together, in anticipation, in preparation. But after Mary’s arrival on Elizabeth’s doorstep and brief greetings, Luke is silent about the rest of the visit. Mary and Elizabeth close the door behind them as they enter the domestic setting. Which makes me wonder what they talked about, laughed about, cried about, prayed about, sang about. Perhaps Luke couldn’t imagine what they would have shared with one another. So perhaps we should use the pregnant pause in Luke’s narrative to make space in our imaginations. Let this imagining be part of our final preparations for the birth of Jesus, once again, and a renewal of our own commitments to side with those on the margins. Let us consider ways we can honor the birth of Jesus by honoring his mother’s love for him and for the lowly and hungry he sought to save from the Empire.
O God who loves all but who holds the poor with special tenderness, may our love for you lead us to love those this world often regards as the least. We pray in the name of your son Jesus and all your sons and daughters who have been treated unjustly. Amen